Author Archives

Longreads Best of 2020: Food

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After revisiting the food stories picked by the team this year, we’ve narrowed down our favorites. Whether you are a fan of marmalade, bagels, or sushi, we hope you find something you enjoy. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

* * *

Flimsy Plastic Knives, a Single Microwave, and Empty Popcorn Bags: How 50 Inmates Inside a Michigan Prison Prepared a Feast to Celebrate the Life of George Floyd (Tana Ganeva, The Counter)

This is a story that puts you through a whole gamut of emotion — from frustration, admiration, joy, to sadness — all while discussing fried rice on a bagel.

The protagonist behind the bagel is Michael Thompson, an inmate of Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan, who has served 25 years of a 40- to 60-year sentence for selling marijuana in Michigan, a state where cannabis is now legal. But it is not his own plight that is concerning Thompson — he has been moved by the story of a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer — George Floyd.

Wanting to find a way to mark Floyd’s death, Thompson decided to share a special meal with his inmates in a “celebration” honoring Floyd’s life. Such a simple concept is a monumental task in prison — and you feel great pride in the inmates you are joining on this mission. First, there is the issue of money — Thompson wanted to feed the whole unit, but resources meant it had to be capped at 50 inmates. Some food was donated, and the rest Thompson bought from the commissary. Then there were tools — the entire operation had to be carried out using “only flimsy plastic knives, a single microwave, and empty popcorn bags.” The men struggled, tearing their hands up with plastic while cutting, but at the end, each “attendee was served one celebration bagel, a bag of chips, and a soda.” And that food was so appreciated — for some, the first cold pop they had drunk for decades.

More than just the enjoyment of the food, this meal brought the men together, even though they had to eat separately, because: “After they returned to their cells, each man sat in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. And then they began to eat.”

Why Grocery Shopping Is on Its Way Out (Cory Mintz, The Walrus)

As a food writer, Corey Mintz loves a supermarket more than most — in fact, he got married in one: “between the cash register, the root-vegetable table, a group of … friends and family, and a display of maple syrup.” In this piece, he gives us a fascinating history of the supermarket, whilst bemoaning what is unwittingly being lost by more and more people as they choose to order their groceries online.

Written just before COVID-19 hit in full force, the topic is eerily prophetic of things to come. When Mintz discusses the loss of “getting out of the house; the freedom of choice; being in a large, expansive space; the visual stimulation of all that abundance on the shelves,” he was unaware that the arrival of the pandemic was soon to rush this reality to the fore for millions. However, as mental health deteriorates alongside isolation in 2020, the accuracy of some of Mintz’s other points is undeniable: The idea that interactions with local storeowners — or “weak ties” — “improve physical and mental health and … reduces loneliness.”

This year supermarkets have been bombarded by a new wave of online customers, and the herculean feat it takes to get a delivery slot suggests that the figures in this article — that 1.5 ­percent of people in Canada and 3 percent in the U.S. order their food online — are already out of date. Now that people have discovered the delight of bananas and chocolate biscuits turning up at their door will they ever go back to their local supermarkets? If these community interactions are lost on a permanent basis, what is the long-term cost?

Mintz will certainly be hoping that in the future we remember that “while other human beings can be annoying—clipping our nails on the subway, calling instead of texting, disrespecting the unwritten rule that the middle seat on a plane gets armrest preference—we need one another.”

Marmalade: A Very British Obsession (Olivia Potts, Longreads)

This essay resonates with the pure joy that a particular food can bring, but it’s not the most obvious of foods — a bitter citrus fruit boiled in sugar to create a breakfast condiment … a.k.a marmalade.

Potts’ language draws you into the kitchen with her as she brews up her concoctions, so you can almost feel the steam and stickiness as she drops “saffron strands into a couple of the jars, stirring last minute, and they hang, suspended in the jelly, perfect threads.” The pleasure she derives from her “potted sunshine” is apparent, but more fascinating is the complicated world of marmalade that she explores. A central theme of British culture — eaten by Samuel Pepys, James Bond, and Paddington Bear — it inspires fanaticism. Invited to judge at the World’s Original Marmalade Awards, Potts discovers that “the tricky, maddening nature of marmalade is precisely why people love making it.”

Along with Potts, we brace ourselves “for the marmalade obsessives” she would find while judging for four days at Dalemain. And yes, 50 sheep were dyed orange in readiness for this year’s festival, but despite herself, Potts finds herself entranced by this eccentric world, and when she is the first to try the marmalade that ultimately won the Double Gold International Marmalade award in the artisan category, she “wanted to ring everyone I know and tell them about this stuff.” It turns out the subculture of marmalade is rather delightful.

Once back at home, and in a global lockdown, Potts finds comfort in making her own marmalade: “there is something inherently optimistic about preservation, about putting something away for your future.”

Read this loving homage to marmalade, and you too will find “a small optimism, a hope of orange-colored happiness in your future.”

The Sacred Ritual of Meals with My Mother (Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Elle)

In this essay, Marie Mutsuki Mockett evokes the vivid associations we can have with food. She argues that the food of our youth — given to us by our mothers — formulates our palette for the rest of our lives. As a teenager, in the hospital with pneumonia, Mockett craved “Japanese soul food” — her mother brought her pickled sour plums, rice, and seasoned ground beef, and her “body reconstituted itself out of her nourishment.” Even today, when she is sick, she yearns for those flavors.

Now the tables have turned, and with her mother aging, it is Mockett who is bringing meals that bring her comfort, such as elegant flats of sushi with “the spinach … steamed, the water squeezed out, and the leaves placed into strips.” Despite her mother leaving Japan for the United States decades earlier, it is the food she grew up with, and taught her daughter to love, that they share — their personal and regional history interwoven.

COVID-19 has now robbed Mockett of the chance to share meals with her mother — whose nursing home was one of the first to shut its doors to visitors. She manages to express her devastation with a simple, yet searing, description: “Sometimes I get a photo of her eating her meals. There is no sushi on her plate.”

My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore? (Gabrielle Hamilton, New York Times Magazine)

This year has been a struggle for many small restaurants — with so many having to shut their doors. In this piece, Gabrielle Hamilton tells the story of the closure hers — Prune — but it is the tale of many. Written from a first-person perspective this is a deeply personal essay that exposes the pain of shuttering a lifelong dream.

Prune was 20 years old when the gates were finally rolled down. A bistro in Manhattan’s East Village, when it was born “there was no Eater, no Instagram, no hipster Brooklyn food scene.” Hamilton worked seven nights a week “driven by the sensory, the human, the poetic and the profane — not by money or a thirst to expand.” However, once she cut her first payroll check, she understood, that poetic notion aside, she was running a business. When COVID-19 hit there was “one piece of unemotional data to work with: the checking account balance,” and there was not enough in it.

It took a week to shut the restaurant. A week of cleaning and “burying par-cooked chickens under a tight seal of duck fat to see if we could keep them perfectly preserved in their airtight coffins.”

Then followed weeks of paperwork — desperately applying for grants and unemployment that failed to appear. Then further weeks of idleness and quarantine, and the realization that although there was still a month of food in the freezer, what about somehow getting hurt and needing serious medical care with no insurance? More questions followed: Is Prune necessary? Will restaurants survive the pandemic?

Having decided against delivery and going online, sticking to her vision of her restaurant “as a place for people to talk to one another, with a very decent but affordable glass of wine and an expertly prepared plate of simply braised lamb shoulder,” Prune’s shutters are still down.

* * *

Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

Longreads Best of 2020: Crime Reporting

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After taking a plunge into the murky world of crime, we narrowed down our favorites. Enjoy these Best of Crime reads, showcasing gripping tales and insights into the human psyche. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

* * *

I Hope Our Daughters Will Not Be Punished (Justine van der Leun, Dissent Magazine)

Van der Leun’s piece details the plight of Kwaneta Yatrice Harris — who, incarcerated for killing an abusive partner, wrote her letters from solitary confinement in a Texas prison. 

This year a lot of us have spent vast expanses of time isolated from family and friends — and so for many, this story will strike a chord. When van de Leun discusses pandemic lockdowns, she states, “Those who were alone began to physically throb for human connection.” This is a powerful concept — if we, with all the distractions of Zoom and Netflix and pets, can still ache for human connection when isolating, consider what it must feel like for those locked in solitary for months, with their senses so deprived of stimulation they magnify to “smell the guard’s perfume, hear the click of shoes echoing from far away.” 

By talking to Harris, van de Leun gives us an inkling of what it is like to live in a condition that is “classified as torture by the United Nations, serves no rehabilitative purpose, and causes mental health to deteriorate in as few as ten days.” A registered nurse, Harris is terrified of COVID-19, and the unsanitary conditions she finds herself in — her unit is rarely cleaned, and she showers in one of three showers shared by forty-two women. 

This essay also echoes another horrific event of 2020 — the death of George Floyd, killed during his arrest in Minneapolis. The racism that Black people experience at the hands of the police can extend to prison wardens. In Texas in 2015, a Black man named Mark Sabbie was feeling unwell — he was given a disciplinary ticket for “creating a disturbance” by “feining [sic] illness and difficulty breathing.” He was cuffed in his cells and left alone — and found dead the next morning. 

An emotional read: but an important look at how the challenges wider society has faced in 2020 are magnified inside the microcosm of a Texas prison.

Pleas of Insanity: The Mysterious Case of Anthony Montwheeler (Rob Fischer, Rolling Stone Magazine)

What does it mean to be “criminally insane”? The official answer sounds simple — to have a mental illness that impairs you from telling the difference between right and wrong. But mental illness is a nuanced spectrum — and, to many, it seems impossible to decipher someone’s state of mind during a crime. This story is a fascinating exploration into the complexities of the insanity plea in the United States — which, even though there are “lots of tests and things you can do to kind of back up your intuition … in the end, it’s kind of this gut feeling.” 

Using the case study of Anthony Montwheeler,  Fischer explores what can happen when a gut feeling isn’t enough. Montwheeler apparently played the system. Charged in 1996 with kidnapping his wife and son at gunpoint he was found “guilty except for insanity.” Twenty years later, he claimed he faked mental illness by studying a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and mimicking behavioral traits — to avoid incarceration in favor of a state psychiatric hospital — and now wanted to be discharged. After he spoke at a hearing for a total of eight-and-a-half minutes, a review board decided Montwheeler was “no longer affected by a qualifying mental disease or defect,” and the state was legally required to discharge him. Had Montwheeler been pretending all those years? It seems no one really knows for sure, but what we do know is that after his release he went on to murder his third ex-wife, Annita Harmon. 

This case is a rarity — the insanity defense is pursued in fewer than one percent of all criminal trials. But, however hard to define, mental health is still an obvious factor in crime: “37 percent of prisoners and 44 percent of jail inmates have been told by a mental health professional at some point in their lives that they suffer from a mental disorder.” Fischer shows that while the insanity defense may be flawed,  there is still a clear link between mental health and criminality — with a lack of mental health care, and the resulting issues, apparent.

The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet (Andy Greenberg, Wired)

Greenberg is meticulous in his detailed analysis of Marcus Hutchins’ character, a hacker who some view as a criminal, and others as the savior of the internet. It’s a thrilling story, with many twists and turns, but also an exploration into people’s moral complexities.

Hutchins stopped the worst malware attack the world had ever seen — christened WannaCry. In the space of an afternoon, it destroyed, by some estimates, nearly a quarter of a million computers’ data — before Hutchins found the kill switch. He was celebrated as a hero, but Hutchins himself knew “what it was like to sit behind a keyboard, detached from the pain inflicted on innocents far across the internet.” Three years earlier he had been the chief author of Kronos — a type of malware focused on stealing banking login credentials. 

After disabling WannaCry, Hutchins’ previous work with Kronos was discovered and he was arrested. The hacker world rallied in support — which left Hutchins ravaged by guilt for what he had done, but even the judge in his trial concluded that “one might view the ignoble conduct that underlies this case as against the backdrop of what some have described as the work of a hero, a true hero.” This is a thought-provoking insight into the gradual descent into a criminal world, the climb back out again, and the layers of gray in between.

The Wind Delivered the Story (Josina Guess, The Bitter Southerner)

It feels jarring to put the terms “beautiful” and “lynching” in the same sentence — but this personal essay about the 1947 lynching of Willie Earle is beautifully written. Guess’ writing is almost lyrical — as she explains how the wind blew “history into my path” in wonderfully descriptive language.

When Guess moved into her farmhouse in Georgia she found a box of old newspapers from the mid-1940s through the early 50s. She stored them in the woodshed until a blustery autumn storm disturbed them and scattered them about the property. One headline that appeared, like “a bird I had been expecting in this landscape that carries memories of racialized violence,” read “State Seeks Death Sentence For All 31 Lynchers.” Not ready for the emotional toll of exploring this incident further, Guess tucked the paper away, but the story wanted to be told, and a few weeks later the wind blew the conclusion across the garden: “28 White Men Get Blanket Acquittal in South Carolina Mass Lynch Trial.” It was Willie Earle who was killed, to avenge the fatal stabbing of a cab driver named Thomas Brown. Arrested, then almost immediately kidnapped from jail, Earle had no opportunity to stand trial — his guilt or innocence was never proven. His murderers were given that chance, but despite ample evidence and confessions, were found innocent.

Guess’ work focuses on dismantling racism in Georgia, so it seemed fate that this story, literally, landed at her feet. She went on to research the history of the Willie Earle murder, discovering it was considered the last lynching in South Carolina, and, although the trial was a miscarriage of justice, it marked the end of mob violence and the beginning of a rumbling that eventually became the Civil Rights Movement.

The Strange and Dangerous World of America’s Big Cat People (Rachel Nuwer, Longreads)

Amongst one or two other things, 2020 was the year people learned the names Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. The Netflix series Tiger King landed on our screens at the same time that many of us were in lockdown due to COVID-19, and was binge-watched by millions. This story by Rachel Nuwer was written before we met these characters on Netflix while clutching our loo rolls and hand sanitizer, and her piece sheds a brighter light on their complicated personalities.

Nuwer’s piece explores the murder-for-hire plots that Exotic instigated against Baskin, but her focus also remains firmly on the animals around which the story revolves. Exotic was not only convicted of murder-for-hire — but of 17 wildlife crimes, including illegally killing five tigers and trafficking them across state lines — a significant conviction when there is still no oversight over big cat ownership by the federal government. This investigation goes beyond the larger than life characters and the human drama, and actually shows us the lives of the animals that are owned by America’s big cat people.

* * *

Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

Open the Door to the Political World of Narnia

Photo by E. Charbonneau/WireImage for Disney Pictures. Getty Images.

C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia have sold over 100 million copies worldwide. The adventures of dwarves, talking animals, and some plucky children have engaged people throughout generations — but Lewis was selling more than just stories — he was also selling Christianity, having discovered, “that a children’s book was the best way of conveying his devoutly Christian message to the world.” While Christianity is indisputably intertwined with the chronicles, according to Mark Jones, writing for The Independent, Lewis’ work also contains a less obvious theme — politics. When we walk with Lucy through the cupboard door into Narnia, we should be aware we are entering a world with a political agenda.

… The four children from England are now kings and queens of Narnia. This is how they rule: “They made good laws and kept the peace … and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.”

I don’t know if Boris Johnson read Narnia as a child. He’d be a rare English middle-class child if he hadn’t. But the adult Johnson could easily lift those words for his next manifesto. As a summary of benign, libertarian Conservative politics, it is nigh-on perfect. And it’s the libertarians who are most on his back now. A visit to Narnia might do him the power of good.

In Narnia Lewis created a vision of these islands that Johnson, not to say Michael Gove and Nigel Farage would heartily endorse. It’s a happy, small, independent nation, bursting with neighbourliness and godliness, where the food is honest and healthy, the beer is excellent, where everyone knows their place – and they’re happy with it.

Narnia also resents modernism and progress — apparent in the third chronicle, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. 

The central theme of the story is a familiar one: a priggish, unpleasant boy called Eustace Scrubb comes to acknowledge god through the figure of Aslan, learning courage, steadfastness and loyalty along the way. He has a Lewisian mountain to climb.

On that first page we discover Eustace’s mother and father are “modern parents” in the manner satirised a few decades later in Viz magazine. He calls them Harold and Alberta, not mother and father. They are “very up to date and advanced people”. Among their many sins – and there is no question Lewis does view these things as sins – they are vegetarian, teetotal non-smokers who (shame!) like to have their windows open and, bizarrely – what was on Lewis’s mind? – “wore a special kind of underclothes”.

But don’t despair of Narnia just yet. It may be full of religious and political messages you are not expecting, but it is also a magical story that children have loved for 70 years.

But there are other roads we can take. Lewis had every chance to “get at” me, in Pullman’s words: I’ve read the chronicles dozens of times as well as his adult novels and Christian apologetics. Yet I turned out to be an atheist, liberal pro-European – a Narnia-loving one.

Read the story

The Price of a Baby

Photo by Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Shockingly, there are several types of people you can buy a baby from in Nairobi, Kenya — corrupt officials, street snatchers preying on vulnerable women, or mothers themselves giving birth in clinics running a black-market trade in babies. These disturbing facts were found out by investigative journalists working for Africa Eye — a documentary strand from the BBC focusing on Africa. Peter Murimi, Joel Gunter, and Tom Watson also detailed these findings in an article on the BBC website — and with no reliable statistics on child trafficking in Kenya, this exposure is of vital importance.

Over the course of a year-long investigation, Africa Eye has found evidence of children being snatched from homeless mothers and sold for massive profits. We uncovered illegal child trafficking in street clinics and babies being stolen to order at a major government-run hospital. And in an effort to expose those abusing government positions, we arranged to purchase an abandoned child from a hospital official, who used legitimate paperwork to take custody of a two-week old boy before selling him directly to us.

The baby-stealers range from vulnerable opportunists to organised criminals — often both elements working together. Among the opportunists are women like Anita, a heavy drinker and drug user who herself lives on and off the street, and makes money stealing children from women like Rebecca — targeting mothers with infants under the age of three.

Africa Eye found out about Anita through a friend of hers, who wanted to remain anonymous. The friend, who asked to be called Emma, said Anita had different methods for snatching children on the street.

“Sometimes she will speak to the mother first, to try and see if the mother knows what she plans to do,” Emma said. “Sometimes she will drug the mother, give her sleeping pills or glue. Sometimes she will play with the kid.

“Anita has a lot of ways to get kids.”

This raises the question of how there is a market for stolen children. Yet, incredibly, there is — and the sellers do not seem too concerned about who the buyers actually are.

Some of the customers were “women who are barren, so for them this is a kind of adoption,” she said, but “some use them for sacrifices”.

“Yes, they are used for sacrifices. These children just disappear from the streets and they are never seen again.”

That dark hint echoed something Emma had already told us, that Anita said some buyers “take the kids for rituals”.

In reality, once Anita has sold a child on, she knows little about their fate. She sells them to the businesswoman for 50,000 shillings for a girl or 80,000 shillings for a boy, she said — £350 or £550. That is roughly the going rate in Nairobi to steal a child from a woman on the street.

Read the story

The End of The Wolf, The Start of The Questions

Courtesy of Pexels

Stqéyəʔ is the Songhees First Nation’s word for a wolf that became known as Takaya — a solitary wolf who lived alone for almost eight years on Discovery Island, in British Columbia, Canada. Larry Pynn explains in Hakai Magazine how during this time he became a local celebrity, particularly adored by conservation photographer Cheryl Alexander,such a regular visitor that Takaya “became a lot like a dog, he will come within 20 feet … sit down, and scratch behind his ear.”

Fast forward to 2020 and Takaya, for unknown reasons, finally left his home and swam to the main island, where, in a world in which humans no longer equaled friends, he met his end at the hands of a hunter. His death has led to a debate around who is to blame. For some, it’s his greatest advocate, Cheryl.

“She broke the wildness of this wolf,” says Danny Smith, a BC trophy-and-meat hunter who has appeared as a hunting personality on Wild TV. “It trusted her.”

… The provincial government had also made up its mind on that point. “It (Takaya) is habituated to people due to years of Discovery Island well-wishers encroaching on its space,” conservation officer Sergeant Scott Norris said in an internal government email.

Cheryl disputes this, not buying into the argument that wolves should naturally be wary of people as “The fear has come from how we treat them. That’s the sad part of this.” Canadian hunting laws have also been brought under the spotlight — wolves are not eaten, but rather hunted as trophies — which can be hard to justify.

Alexander feared Takaya would be shot or trapped ever since his relocation.

“It’s very definitely the government regulations and mentality that need to be addressed rather than just this individual hunter who unfortunately was in the position where he shot a famous wolf,” she says.

The provincial government reports that hunters kill, on average, 20 wolves per year on Vancouver Island, while trappers take another seven. Those kills are not enough to jeopardize the population, but it underscores a troubling attitude to predators, says Darimont. “This is not an issue of the population’s numerical sustainability, it’s an ethical issue. I think it’s wrong to kill something with no intention of eating it. Let’s face it, it’s pretty gross behavior … and it casts all hunters in a bad light,” he says.

Whatever your viewpoint, it is clear that Takaya lost his wildness, and then his life. In his death, he has highlighted the different social values of the people who inhabit his old territory — with the arguments even extending to his remains.

… on March 31, Alexander wrote to the provincial government saying that, if it comes into possession of the skull and hide, “I request that they be returned to myself so that Takaya’s legacy can be continued through public exhibitions at museums.”

… That didn’t happen.

On April 30, the Ministry of Environment provided me with a brief statement: “We understand that the hunter and Songhees First Nation have reached a resolution that will see the body returned to the Nation. We are grateful that a resolution has been reached, so that Songhees can carry out appropriate ceremony for healing and closure.”

Read the story

Let Me In

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Nkiacha Atemnkeng, a writer from Cameroon, is often invited to attend writer’s residencies in other countries. However, as he explains in The Johannesburg Review of Books, it is rare for him to actually get to go. As a young, single man, he is often, viewed as a “flight risk” by western countries, and denied entry — but not before being put through a humiliating interview at their embassy. Visas to the US have become particularly elusive under the presidency of Donald Trump — with entry to the US, even to study,  “very very tight, very tight.”

The rejections continue. Even a pastor is turned away, visaless. A woman who has brought her old, ailing father is making a scene. He has been given a visa and she has been rejected. He is quiet. She is screaming. How will he get to the US alone? He can barely walk. The consular officers are unmoved by her theatrics. She won’t leave the counter. A security guard appears. She walks away. The consular officers keep working. They don’t even examine applicants’ documents, as I heard they did in the past – they just look at the admission letter or invitation to a university graduation or wedding. Then they interview the applicant and decide upon their fate, which is mostly reject, reject, reject.

I am next, residency invitation in hand, other documents and published work neatly in a file. I have to stand in front of the seated consular officer – a slim man with geeky reading glasses – throughout my interview.

“What is the purpose of your trip to the US?”

“I’m going to attend the Art Omi international residency, sir,” I say, handing him my invitation through the space in the glass. He reads it diligently.

“So who is paying for your trip?”

“Art Omi will pay for my lodging and feeding, as it is said in the letter. I will pay for my flight.”

“What do you write?”

“Fiction and creative nonfiction. I’m a blogger, too, so I create online content.” He types all I say. I continue. “I’ve brought all my published works in print with me. Short stories in a few anthologies and my children’s chapbook.”

I am about to give him my second file of published work when he snaps through the microphone: “No, no, no, I don’t want to see any books.” He opens his right palm towards me and shakes it vigorously from right to left and left to right, in a keep-those-things-away manner.

Read the story

The Toll of Separation

Safa and Marwa Bibi, Caters News Agency

This week, 3-year-old twins Safa and Marwa Bibi went back home to Pakistan — having been away since August 2018. As Rachael Buchanan reports for the BBC, this was the time it has taken to separate the twins — who were conjoined at the head.  

Conjoined twins develop from one fertilised egg and so are always identical.

There are two theories about why they are fused together – either the split into two embryos happens later than usual, and the twins only partially divide, or, following the split, parts of the embryos remain in contact and those body parts merge as they grow.

When it occurs, twins are more commonly connected at the chest, abdomen or pelvis. 

Safa and Marwa’s particular commingled physiology presents a unique set of challenges for the GOSH team. The girls are joined at the top of their heads – crown to crown – facing opposite directions.  

They have never seen each other’s faces.

The twins were treated by a team of 100 people at Great Ormond Street Hospital, in England. One of their surgeons, Professor David Dunaway, described their case as the hardest they have ever undertaken, partly because of their distorted brain shape, and partly because of their age — younger twins have a greater chance of success, but due to problems raising funding, Safa and Marwa were 19 months before they were brought to England. This led to some agonizing decisions being made on the operating table, which in turn took an emotional toll on the girls’ doctors.  

That’s when Marwa’s heart rate plummets and they fear she may die on the table.

There is suddenly quiet and stillness around the operating table as all eyes are on the instrument screens. The only sounds are the accelerated beeps of the heart monitors.

The crisis passes, but not without serious consequences.

It is clear to the surgical team that Marwa is the weaker twin. So they decide to give her a key shared vein. It will increase her chances of survival.

It is a hugely difficult decision. Jeelani knows that it may have a serious impact on Safa, until now the stronger twin.

But the team agrees that it is the right thing to do. The operation lasts more than 20 hours. Jeelani is exhausted and hands over to plastic surgeon Juling Ong to close.

“I am relieved. We thought we might lose Marwa at one point,” he says. “But if they wake up as we hope they will, it’s gone well.”

…. In the late afternoon, Jeelani telephones the hospital from home to check on the girls. He is told that Safa is in trouble, making no effort to breathe and her skin is mottled.

“I thought, ‘Safa is dead’,” he says, and recounts how, emotionally exhausted and sleep-deprived, he collapsed on his kitchen floor and started to cry.

Read the story

Who Gets a Vaccine?

Photo by Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

2020 is the year that brought us COVID-19 — but as Danielle Groen explains in The Walrus, the battle against viruses is not a new one. In the 1600s Chinese doctors were attempting to vaccinate against smallpox by grinding a “scab into a powder” and blowing it up the patient’s nose, and the basic principle has not changed to this day — teaching the immune system how to fight a virus if it is infected. The difference with COVID-19 is the need to vaccinate the whole world, fast. Developing the vaccine is still the first hurdle, but what comes next is going to be just as complicated, with every country in competition for supplies. 

Making a successful vaccine is one challenge. Making enough of it to satisfy world demand is another. There are, of course, all sorts of regulations and standards concerning how to go about production: “I can’t head into my basement and start brewing up a vaccine,” says Curtis Cooper, president of the Canadian Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Every facility needs to conform to Good Manufacturing Practices (gmp), which are exceptionally specific rules set out by the WHO that ensure quality control. You want consistency over time so that each successive batch is precisely the same.

… the UK reserved 100 million doses of the University of Oxford’s vaccine while the US secured another 300 million—that’s nearly a quarter of Oxford’s projected annual supply gone. By mid-August, preorders of COVID-19 vaccine candidates were reportedly stretching toward 6 billion doses, almost all of them claimed by wealthy nations. None of these vaccines has yet been proven to work.

This raises the question of whether it will be the wealthy countries that dominate the vaccine supply, and other ethical questions also lurk beneath the surface. 

Do you vaccinate to prevent mortality? In that case, for this virus, the elderly need to be prioritized. Do you vaccinate to reduce transmission and spread? There are some house-partying twentysomethings in Kelowna who could get the jab. Or do you vaccinate widely in an attempt to achieve herd immunity? NACI advises that front line workers be prioritized because they’re at a greater risk of infection based on the work they do. But that’s not axiomatic: “There’s no commandment in the bible of pandemic response that health care workers go first,” Upshur says. “You have to make arguments, and those arguments are based partly on data and partly on ethics.” We know that racialized and low-income people are infected at rates wildly disproportionate to their populations, not for any epidemiological reason but because of historical and economic disadvantages. This inequality persists for those working in the health care system itself: The Lancet published a study of almost 100,000 front line health care workers in the UK and US, which found that racialized workers were nearly twice as likely as their white colleagues to come down with COVID-19. Should decision making about vaccine prioritization be based on structural social causes instead?

Read the story

Selling Fame

Pexels

A celebrity autograph scribbled on a scrap of paper with a sharpie used to be a treasured possession — but, as K.J Yossman notes in his piece for Wired UK, it’s now a selfie or a video to post on social media that makes a brush with fame worthwhile. With few fans getting to actually encounter their idols in real life, a group of entrepreneurs is using an app called Cameo as a way to cash in on this trend.

The site boasts more than 30,000 “celebrities” across a plethora of industries from entertainment to sports to social media to business, all available to deliver individually-tailored missives at the touch of a button. All you need to do is select a name, type in what you want her or him to say and fill in your payment details. The person you’ve booked then has seven days to record your message and upload it to Cameo.com, where anyone can view it (unless you’ve opted to make the video private).

At the time of writing, fees range anywhere from £8.30, for New Zealand cricketer Peter Younghusband, to £41,500, for American comedian Chris D’Elia, who, unsurprisingly, has never been booked at that price. Talent set their own price tags, although Cameo, which takes a 25 per cent cut of each transaction, does offer guidance. “It’s about how much your fans can afford, not how much you’re worth,” says Abbie Sheppard, who heads Cameo’s UK and European office. (Galanis puts D’Elia’s eye-watering fee down to his wacky sense of humour.) For those with a more restricted budget, there are still plenty of household names available for under £1,000, including Snoop Dogg (£622.50), Lindsay Lohan (£249), John Cleese (£352.75) and even 94-year-old Dick van Dyke (£830), whose video greetings are recorded at a piano and almost always include a few lines from some of his best-known hits.

For many celebrities, the idea of charging fans to wish them congratulations or say hello does not sit well, but from February to March of this year there was still a 77 percent increase in talent joining the site — suggesting that the pandemic shutting down other avenues for exposure enhanced Cameo’s appeal. For the fans, this has been a delight, with the site offering new ways to deliver messages that could not always be given in person during COVID-19.

a woman booking NFL player Tyler Lockett to tell her husband that she’s pregnant, a fan requesting that actor Dolph Lundgren wish his doctor friend luck fighting Covid-19, and one customer asking influencer and voice actor IRLRosie to tell someone to stop talking during films – in the manner of Amazon’s Alexa device. From mid-March to mid-April Cameo reported a 176 per cent increase in bookings; Galanis says many were requests for reassurance or advice.

However, there is a darker side to Cameo, with some people finding their fame being inadvertently used to support causes they do not believe in.

…in 2018 a handful of celebrities including NFL player Brett Favre, comedian Andy Dick and rapper Soulja Boy were tricked into recording shout-outs for a white supremacist group, some of which included coded antisemitic messages. “You guys are patriots in my eyes,” Favre, who charges £249 per video, said in the video, mistakenly believing he was talking to a veterans’ organisation. In the same year, Flava Flav was duped into sending a “happy retirement” message to an Australian cardinal who had recently been convicted of sexually abusing children (the conviction was later overturned).

Read the story

Until I Have Your Money

In an article for Chantelaine, Courtney Shea explores a dating hazard that, before the advent of Dirty John,  many did not associate with romance — financial scammers, a step beyond normal catfishing. It’s a problem that is on the rise, so much so that “weeding out scammers is just another reality of dating these days, right up there with fielding dick pics.” Figures show that women over the age of forty are particularly susceptible to these scam artists. 

“Invisible woman syndrome” describes the phenomenon wherein women are ignored after they reach a certain age—by potential employers, by suitors, by bartenders. No longer imbued with youth or fertility or (as Amy Schumer would say) “f-ckability,” we have ceased to serve our biological purpose and are deemed less valuable. And then along comes a person who sees you and appreciates you and promises to make all of your dreams come true. Who wouldn’t want to believe in that?

In this article Shea talks to several Canadian women who were scammed by the same man, Marcel Andre Vautour. The women found that police took little interest in their cases, citing romance fraud as more of a civil matter. However, by banding together these women discovered a source of comfort — and the courage to act as their own detectives. 

For Nikola, connecting with Vautour’s other victims was the only thing that got her through that terrible time. “I went to the police and they basically kicked me out of the room,” she says. “Rosey and the other women gave me a lot of support.” And she gave them a good tip: Vautour had bought himself a fancy backpack with her credit card and, knowing him, he would try to sell it. Rosey went onto Kijiji and there was the identical backpack, for sale by a guy in Nanaimo named Marc.

This was in June 2019; by then I had been researching this story for a few months. I was at my mom’s 70th birthday party when I got a text from Jodi: “WE’VE GOT HIM!!! FINALLY!!! WE’RE GOING TO GET THIS GUY!!!” She was in Nanaimo, having made the six-hour journey from Kelowna. Her new boyfriend, Vince, was with her and they checked into a hotel before setting off on their mission. Rosey was also en route.

Read the story